MILAN (Reuters) - The leader of Italy's right-wing League party, Matteo Salvini, has defiantly asked to be put on trial over his handling of migrants at sea last year when he was interior minister in the previous government.
Salvini has denounced moves to put him on trial over the incident last July in which he refused to let 131 migrants rescued at sea disembark from a coastguard vessel until other European states agreed to take them in.
A special Senate committee is due to vote on Monday on whether to accept a request by a special tribunal to put him on trial, a step that is required by law in cases involving former ministers.
Campaigning ahead of a vital election in the north-central region of Emilia Romagna, he has used the incident to attack judges and the ruling coalition, saying he is being targeted for doing his duty as a minister to protect the country.
"I say this to those senators who have to decide whether to send me to trial or not, I ask you formally, send me to trial, send me to trial because the Italian people will be on trial with me," he told a rally in the town of Maranello.
"And if I have to go to jail for defending an idea, I'll go with my head held high."
If Salvini does go to trial and is found guilty of illegally detaining the migrants, he could theoretically face up to 15 years in jail although that would only come at the end of a long appeals process.
Salvini, who quit the government with the League last year, had pledged to stop migrant boats arriving from Libya by making it more difficult for them to dock in Italian ports.
The League, which has a strong lead in national opinion polls, is hoping victory in Emilia Romagna, a traditional stronghold of the left in Italy, will bring down the government in Rome and trigger new elections.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)